Michel de Montaigne, the French writer of Essays, was a thinker. Alone in a library, his library, pondering. Alone, as he was in conception, as he will be in death. Alone, facing his maker, facing the universe, facing himself. No one thinks but that they are alone. No other can think for us. Only an individual can think, can hope to know. And so he sits and thinks, surrounded by books, classics: Sallust, Seneca, Plato, Livy, and especially Plutarch. Surrounded as well by quotes, statements carved into the wooden rafters of the thinker’s hall, reminding him of earlier thinkers, of great thoughts. They are not his thoughts but he wants them to be. He wants them to seep within him, became a part of him, become him. Old thoughts resurrected, restored, renewed. What were another’s thoughts to become his, singularly expressed, unique, once-in-a-lifetime thoughts.
Montaigne had cause to think. His life was filled with thought and confusion, joy and sorrow, peace and conflict. He lived at a time of religious wars. He was a Catholic but could not countenance their violence toward Protestants, nor could he countenance the wanton disregard of religious order that the Protestants violently pursued. In his personal life, death was an all too frequent visitor for a man who lost his father, best friend, younger brother, and five children all by the time he was fifty. In a 1570 letter, Montaigne dedicated to his wife Francoise de La Chassaigne his departed friend La Boetie’s translation of Plutarch’s “Letter of Consolation to His Wife.” The couple had recently lost their first born, Thoinette, at the age of two months. Montaigne claimed that all of his feelings regarding the sad event were best summed by Plutarch, who consoled his wife upon the death of their daughter at the age of two. Montaigne and his wife had five times the experience of this most fleeting moment of life. Six daughters they conceived and brought forth: all save one died within three months. The last, Marie, died within a few days of her birth. Montaigne was (like Plutarch) not the type to bounce an infant on his knee in play. Yet to bury five infants, five wonderful examples of God’s grace, each a singular incarnation, took a significant toll on Montaigne, who characteristically (and stoically) submerged his feelings under the weight of philosophy and faith. What more proof is needed to show humans to be doomed to mirror the passing instant, overwhelmed by the passage of time, uncertain where they are going and where they have been, living only in the narcissistic moment?
Death defined Montaigne’s being. Born in1533, he spent his life on the family estates in the wine region of Bordeaux. He served for years in the Bordeaux Parlement, and was an adviser to royalty. He married in 1565, just three years before his father’s death to kidney stones. The son inherited the disease five years later, and lived with it for almost twenty years before it finally killed him in 1592. Montaigne enjoyed semi-permanent retirement during these years of disease and expectation of death. He typically spent his days in his library, secluded from the rest of the chateau. There he surrounded himself with the past, with his favorite authors and their profound words, carved into the beams of the ceiling and elsewhere throughout the cylindrical room.
Montaigne wrote the course of his life into his Essays. He followed the ancient Stoics in believing that one must control one’s passions and live moderately, rid oneself of needless emotions and conquer the fear of death. Philosophy can teach us how to die, Montaigne declared, as had so many philosophers before him. But great thoughts could not turn away the fear of acquiring, and pain of having, kidney stones. In his longest essay, the Apology for Raymond Sebond, Montaigne challenged the human presumption of reason, questioned what can be known, and explored the dependence of humans upon God. His Essays are introspective, intuitive, in which he discovered the universality of his own experiences, confronted his own mortality, and discovered the means of achieving contentment. Montaigne decided that knowledge, if it could be gained, must be based on tracing his own movement over time.
Montaigne subjectively embraced his own experience as a moment of existence, but with sensitivity to the past lives of others. He developed a mature sense of historical distance while remaining empathetic toward past humans, but assumed that his own experiences were just as, if not more, important than those of kings and conquerors. Montaigne recorded human history as a participant rather than as an observer. He broke from the fundamental assumption held by historians of his own time as well as by historians of antiquity of the necessary separation between the subject and object of inquiry. Montaigne was a historian of humanity because he was a historian of himself. He was aware that it is absurd for a human to try to objectively analyze humans. Who can objectively analyze one’s own self, one’s own being? The mirror image of humanity always stares right back. Montaigne turned autobiography into a general history of human experience. Montaigne focused on the particular, humdrum events and thoughts of his life, and in the process painted a portrait of human experience. The reader of the Essays can look at Montaigne’s life in the continuum of time, and at a given moment, and see it reflected in one’s own passing, one’s own particular moments. Montaigne’s confrontation with death, his search for happiness, his need “to live appropriately,” becomes my own.
A good example of Montaigne’s chameleon-like quality respecting his simultaneous pursuit of the secular and religious past is one of his final essays, Of Repentance. A quick glance at Of Repentance does not reveal a religious treatise. The title indicates one’s struggle with sin and desire for absolution from God. Instead, Montaigne opens the essay with a discussion that shows relish for his task of self-description. Rather than seeking forgiveness for past wrongs, Montaigne says that his “conscience is content with itself.” He discusses the reflection on past times that comes with old age. He notes the ease with which one can live a public life; what is challenging is one’s private behavior, at home with spouse and children. Montaigne makes only a couple of passing references to God—he is not perfunctory, rather serious. Even so, one wonders what Augustine would have done in such an essay. Montaigne appears to secularize a topic that usually requires the utmost humility and piety.
But there is more to Of Repentance—indeed to Montaigne’s Essays—than the immediately obvious. Of Repentance perhaps more than any other essay (save Of Experience) reveals Montaigne’s fundamental assumptions about personal and human experience. Montaigne refers to his Essays as “history”—not a standard, static history, but one that changes as the object of inquiry, the self, changes. “I do not portray being: I portray passing. Not the passing from one age to another . . . but from day to day, from minute to minute.” Montaigne focused on the particular, humdrum events and thoughts of his life, and in the process painted a portrait of human experience. The reader of the Essays can look at Montaigne’s life in the continuum of time, and at a given moment, and see it reflected in one’s own passing, one’s own particular moments. Montaigne’s confrontation with death, his search for happiness, his need “to live appropriately,” becomes my own. Through my dialogue with Montaigne’s past I come to see my own past…..